That diarrhoea in your sheep or cow is a sign of a bigger disease

Friday April 29 2016

Daniel Kimani feeding his livestock at his

Daniel Kimani feeding his livestock at his farm in Kagiko village, Thika. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE  

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As the world commemorates the International Veterinary Day today, veterinary professionals are raising the red flag over the rise in Johne’s disease, an incurable fatal ailment.

Dr Joseph Omega, a veterinary surgeon, says there is increased incidence of the Johne’s disease (or paratuberculosis), which is prevalent in Kenya because most livestock farmers are either ignoring advice offered or they are not bothering to involve vets.

Johne’s disease is caused by a bacterium—Mycobacterium avium paratuberculosis— that is in the same family as the one that causes the human tuberculosis.

Domestic animals (mostly sheep and cattle) acquire it from consuming milk, water or feeds that are contaminated with faecal matter from an infected animal.

The sick animal portrays a voracious appetite and diarrhoea in a manner that the droppings are ejected out of its body in a projectile.

The faeces of the animals become watery and smelly as the animal grows thinner by the day before it finally dies.

Due to the length of the period that the disease takes to show its clinical signs—two years— on the animal, Dr Omega says that most farmers are not able to recognise it or if they do, they treat something different.


“Most farmers confuse it with worms, so they do not take necessary actions to arrest the undesirable side effects of the disease on other animals.”

Dr Omega’s concerns arise from a study that he conducted in Kericho where he was investigating the farmers’ attitude and farm practices as far as the transmission of the disease is concerned.

Kericho recorded the first incidence of the disease in 1998 after the El Nino rains and the worst that the district experienced was in 2009, where 207 cases were recorded.

Dr Omega’s research pointed out simple rules in farming, especially the milking techniques, which farmers violated out of ignorance that cost them money and their animals.

Cows graze in an field of pasture. Veterinary

Cows graze in an field of pasture. Veterinary professionals are raising the red flag over the rise in Johne’s disease, an incurable fatal ailment. PHOTO | BENJAMIN SITUMA | NATION MEDIA

Nine out ten of the 419 households that he interviewed (91.6 per cent) said that they let the calves suckle first before they milk and only a paltry 6 per cent fed their calves from the bucket.

“In the case that the udders of the cow are stained with faecal matter that tested positive for the disease, the calf stands a chance of being infected.”

Apart from the danger of the disease, this method of feeding and milking disenfranchised the farmer in several ways.

“If the calf is used to feeding from the bucket, it can survive in case the mother dies, and when you have programmed the cow to produce milk only when the calf has suckled, it can never be milked without the calf should the calf die.”


Such practices make farmers unable to account for the amount of milk that the calf takes.

“We asked them, how many litres the cow produces? They say 10 and when you ask them whether that is inclusive of what the calf suckled, they are at a loss of what to say,” he said.

Dr Omega’s research also revealed that almost all the famers in the area of study disposed their livestock manure in manner that increased the chances of the disease spreading to other animals.

The farmers “leave it in the rubbish”, which leaves the waste with the pathogens exposed and contaminating the grass and can be washed away when it rains to another farmer’s land where other animals become exposed.

For the choice of production systems, a whopping 98.4 per cent, practice mixed farming involving communal, zero or semi zero grazing.

The cleanliness of communal land, Dr Omega says, cannot be guaranteed and neither can be the health of the animals that access that land.

Interestingly, when asked where their animals spend most of their time, 30 per cent of the Kericho farmers said “in the communal land”.


The motivations for keeping animals also shed light into the reason why the disease could not be kicked out of the small scale famers’ herds.

Apart from being a source of income (96.4 per cent), source of food as in milk and eggs (96.4) or just being food like poultry (81.5 per cent), 26.8 farmers also said they keep the animals for sentimental values.

“These are those animals that were given to the household as a dowry, and the farmer becomes too attached to it that the animals cannot be removed from that system.”

Ideally, the sick animal is supposed to be culled—sold to the slaughterhouse— but, Dr Omega points out: “You try to get the animal out of the farm and the farmer feels like it is the in-law being kicked out of the compound.”

None of the farmers also attributed the cause of the diarrhoea to the infection.

They thought it was lush pasture, worms, an infection (but not Johnes). Most farmers treat animals based on personal experience, says Dr Omega.